Election Vaults Gop From Political Back Seat To Front

November 11, 1990|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

After years in the political back seat, county Republicans jumped into the front seat as a result of Tuesday's general election, capturing five of seven County Council seats and two of five seats in Harford's General Assembly delegation.

Prior to the election, Republicans held two seats on council seats and none in the delegation.

Most Democrat incumbents challenged by Republicans were swept from office.

"It's a great day to be a Republican in Harford County," said Michael Davall, chairman of the county Republican Central Committee.

For the first time in 18 years, Republicans will hold a majority on the seven-seat council.

The GOP also will send two delegates to Annapolis, taking seats held by incumbent Democrats William H. Cox Jr., D-District 34, and Joseph V. Lutz, D-District 35A.

Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson and Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott, the lone Republican incumbents, won by comfortable margins against Democratic challengers.

Even the Republican candidates who lost did better than many election observers expected. County executive candidate Geoffrey R. Close lost by just 775 votes to Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann, who had won a landslide primary victory in September against Councilwoman Barbara A. Risacher.

In addition, James Cooper lost by 3,300 votes in his challenge for the District 35 state Senate seat against Democratic incumbent William H.

Amoss. Cooper lost to Amoss by more than 7,000 votes in 1986.

The strong showing by the GOP surprised not only county Democrats, but also Republicans.

"I thought we would do well, but this exceeded by expectations," said Wilson, who defeated Democrat Frederick T. Hatem by more than 4,000 votes for the council president's seat.

Foreshadowing the strong GOP showing, Republican voter registrations in Harford have steadily increased over the last several years, records at the county Board of Elections show.

In 1985, the county had 47,837 registered Democrats and 21,339 registered Republicans, a more than 2-to-1 advantage.

Now, there are 46,036 Democrats and 28,569 Republicans, about a 1.6-to-1 advantage.

Republican and Democratic officials agree that a large number of Democratic voters crossed party lines and voted for GOP candidates.

But David W. Shrodes, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee, said he believed the GOP made strong gains due more to a anti-incumbent mood among voters than to platforms or other strengths GOP candidates offered.

"(The Republican victory) was a regional anti-incumbent fluke," Shrodes said. "That's about all you can boil it down to. . . . It would have been the other way around if the Republicans had the same number of offices as the Democrats."

Coverage of the anti-incumbent mood during the last few weeks before the election prompted voters to follow the "throw-the-rascals-out" mentality, Shrodes said.

But council president Wilson said the anti-incumbent mood cannot be the only reason why Democrats lost. If that were the case, Wilson said, he and Parrott would have lost with the other incumbents.

James M. Harkins, former chairman of county Republicans and the top voter-getter in the District 35A House of Delegates race, also thinks the reasons for the GOP victories go deeper than anti-incumbent sentiment.

Starting after the 1986 elections, the county Republican Central Committee worked hard to register voters and form a strong slate of candidates for 1990. It set a goal of winning nine elected seats this year, he said.

The committee established a "school" to provide Republican candidates with campaign tips and information on issues to help them decide their positions, Harkins said.

Davall said the GOP central committee held rallies, published a voters guide, paid for advertisements, put up signs, sent out mailings and telephoned voters for its candidates throughout the campaign.

Also, said Davall, some Democratic incumbents, particularly Councilmen G. Edward Fielder and J. Robert Hooper, did not campaign as hard as their Republican opponents -- and that showed in the results.

Shrodes agreed that some Democrats did not campaign as heavily as their Republican challengers, but contends there was little they could have done in light of the voters' mood against incumbents.

"It was like a tidal wave that hit," Shrodes said. "You didn't have long to prepare for it. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen."

Davall said he believes the Democrats have lost touch with citizens, particularly on growth and environment issues.

"It's a lack of sensitivity to what their constituents are concerned about," he said.

As an example, Davall pointed to Fielder's and Hatem's votes against a council motion to appeal a recent court ruling favoring Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc.'s proposed asbestos and rubble fill near Havre de Grace. The council vote came after citizens urged the council to fight the rubble fill proposal.

Also, he said support by Hatem, Hooper and Fielder for a rezoning of land for a proposed mall at Route 24 and Interstate 95 also hurt those incumbents. Many residents had urged the council to oppose the rezoning.

But Shrodes disagrees. He said the council dealt with many difficult issues over the last four years, and it's easy for the Republicans to say now how those issues should have been handled.

"The Republicans should hold off on the criticism and see what their candidates will do in the next four years," Shrodes said. "Everybody has good hindsight."

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